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Iran may be 'cleansing' suspected nuclear site, analysis says

May 9, 2012 | 10:54 am

Iran's Parchin compoundA flurry of recent activity at an Iranian military compound, spotted on commercial satellite photos, has raised concern that Iran may be "cleansing" a building before nuclear inspectors can examine it, said an analysis by a Washington-based security institute.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, has been trying to gain access to the Parchin compound, which Iran says is simply a military base. The agency said there were "strong indicators of possible weapon development" there in a November report.

In March, Iran said it would allow inspectors to examine the facility. But it tried to impose strict limitations on the agency that would hamper its work, the Arms Control Assn. wrote in a March analysis. Visiting Parchin is expected to be one of the major issues in upcoming talks between the U.N. agency and Iran.

The debate over inspecting Parchin has fueled Western suspicions that Iran may be stonewalling inspectors so the facility can be cleaned up before they get there, trying to eliminate evidence of any nuclear work.

Satellite photos taken in April show unknown objects lined up outside a Parchin building and a stream of water emanating from or near it, suggesting that Iranian officials may be trying to clean the building of nuclear traces, the Institute for Science and International Security wrote on its website Tuesday. The building is suspected of holding an explosives chamber used in nuclear experiments.

To clean it, Iran might try to grind down surfaces or equipment, creating dust that would then be washed away, said Paul Brannan, a senior analyst with the institute. The goal would be to defeat environmental testing by inspectors if they were allowed to visit the site.

Nothing like this has been seen in satellite shots of the Parchin building going back months or even years, Brannan said. "All of a sudden we see this activity after the IAEA says they’re interested in visiting this site," the analyst said.

IAEA chief Yukiya Amano told Reuters last week that the agency had noticed "activities" at Parchin, though Amano said they could not tell what the activities were.

Iran has repeatedly denied that its nuclear program is tied to weapons development, saying it is for peaceful purposes. It will never give up its plans to develop nuclear energy, the Iranian judiciary chief told the Islamic Republic News Agency on Wednesday.

If Iran is indeed trying to clean up the building to avoid detection when inspectors arrive, it is unlikely to work, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Assn. "It only takes a few atoms of these trace materials to show up around the sites," Kimball said.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Commercial satellite imagery of the Parchin compound in Iran as analyzed by the Institute for Science and International Security. Credit: DigitalGlobe / Institute for Science and International Security

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